'IoS' hastens end of GM crops in Britain

After five years of lobbying by the public and this newspaper, the Government caves in
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The Independent Online

Wednesday should have been a triumphant day for Tony Blair. That evening the latest revolt by Labour MPs - on tuition fees - fizzled out like all those before it.

But, almost unnoticed, this was also the day on which the Prime Minister suffered his greatest ever defeat. It was inflicted not by Parliament, but by the public, with the assistance of a five-year campaign in The Independent on Sunday.

For the decision by Bayer CropScience to "discontinue" its efforts to grow a modified maize in this country marks the end of Mr Blair's personal drive to make Britain the "European hub" for GM technology.

The Government admitted that no genetically modified crops would now be grown in Britain for "the foreseeable future", and both campaigners and ministers believe that might mean never. Peter Melchett, the policy director of the Soil Association, said bluntly: "This is the end of GM in Britain."

Many can rightly lay claim to major credit for this, the first outright defeat for one of the Prime Minister's passionately promoted causes - notably pressure groups, critical politicians and, above all, the public.

But the former Environment minister, Michael Meacher, who has himself played one of the most crucial roles in the drama, said yesterday that the IoS had been "the most effective anti-GM campaigner" of all.

Five years ago, when we began our campaign, it appeared to be a lost cause. Sixty per cent of processed foods on supermarket shelves contained GM soya. Widespread cultivation of GM crops throughout the countryside was assumed to be only a year away. More than 50 different ones were awaiting approval.

The giant biotech companies seemed unstoppable; Monsanto was poised to make a merger that would have turned it into the world's largest corporation. The Government put all its weight behind the technology, and Mr Blair privately dismissed public concern as "a flash in the pan".

We started our campaign in February 1999 by calling for a pause in the rush to a GM future. We demanded a three-year moratorium in cultivating GM crops, while research was carried out. ("We urge a freeze rather than a ban, because we are happy to listen to the arguments in favour of GM," we wrote.) And we insisted that "all products containing GM food should be clearly labelled".

Both ambitions were realised. In November 1999 the Government - led by Michael Meacher - concluded year-long negotiations with the biotech industry, establishing a three-year voluntary moratorium while official trials were carried out. And it was soon officially accepted that GM foods would have to be labelled.

During the pause the scientific evidence piled up, overwhelmingly reinforcing the doubts we expressed at the beginning of the campaign. As it came in, we converted our campaign into outright opposition.

Study after study showed that genes from GM crops spread to neighbouring organic and conventional produce; only last month we reported that more than two-thirds of non-GM crops in the United States were so contaminated.

Concern at the lack of testing of GM foods for their effects on health continued to mount, and was reflected in our pages. It was here, in February 2000, that Mr Blair - who had previously let it be known that he was happy to eat GM foods - first admitted that they had "potential for harm" to health.

An exclusive award-winning report in October that year revealed that trial GM crops were being grown at secret sites around Britain, contrary to government assurances, and helped to secure agreement that the location of all modified crops growing anywhere in Europe would have to be made public. And last autumn we revealed that an apparent clearance for GM maize through the Government's official trials was invalid because a pesticide central to this conclusion was about to be banned.

Throughout this period, the campaign against GM was being vigorously fought by pressure groups - notably Friends of the Earth, the Soil Association and the relatively small Genewatch - and public opposition to the technology was rising.

Now 84 per cent of the public say they will not eat GM foods, and ministers accept that there is no market for them. Supermarkets have fallen over each other to take them off their shelves: none now stocks them.

Last year Monsanto announced that it was closing down its cereal seed business in Britain and Europe. The Government still pressed on, tentatively approving Bayer's GM maize only last month, while imposing strict conditions on its cultivation. But with Bayer's withdrawal, none of the 50 crops originally queuing for approval will now be grown.

Last night Lord Melchett said that the IoS's campaign had made "all the difference". The Conservative MP Peter Ainsworth, chairman of the House of Commons Environment Audit Committee, which produced a critical report on GM last month, praised our "persistently incisive coverage".

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